Carl Orff (1895-1982) was born into an old Bavarian military family and a devout active Roman Catholic. He found himself lionised overnight at the age of 42 after years as a teacher of music. Although he was to consolidate his reputation with a wide-ranging canon of music, distinctively unlike anyone else's, over the subsequent forty years, he was never able to escape the cachet of the Carmina Burana composer. Orff conceived his scenic cantata for the stage. His explicit ambition for it was total theatre in which words, music and movement were co-ordinated to create an effect of all-round involvement and it was in the idiom of the theatre that its early performances took place.
Gradually, however, it became the province of purely choral forces and it is in concert performance that the work is familiar nowadays.
For his texts, Orff took 25 verses from a collection of 13th century poems, where he took his piece’s name from, discovered in the early 19th century in the abbey of Benediktbeuren near Munich, his native city. The manuscript is perhaps the most important source for Latin secular poetry of the 12th-Century goliardic repertory. There are some poems in German, and several of the poems have music written in unheighted neumes, a relatively rare style of notation at the time, but Orff did not use any of the proginal melodies. In total, the manuscript contains approximately 250 poems. Carmina Burana in Latin means Songs of Beuren.
Variously written by itinerant scholars in low Latin and early German, the poems mingle Christian piety and pagan hedonism in a spirit of simplicity and unselfconscious directness which were intrinsic in the medieval approach to mortality. The poems include the...